Some people get back on their feet quickly after crises, others let small things knock them out for a long time. Neurobiologist Gerhard Roth reveals which factors influence the mental resilience – and that blood and saliva tests already provide indications of how crisis-proof someone is.

Crises can blow you away, that’s completely normal. But some people manage to cope well with traumatic events and soon look positively into the future again. They are resilient, i.e. resistant to negative external influences. Whether someone has this crisis resilience or not is closely related to the first years of life and the time before that, says Gerhard Roth.

FOCUS Online: Mr Roth, resilience can be learned, so can we become crisis-proof through training?

Gerhard Roth: The foundations of resilience, that is, psychological resistance, are largely influenced before birth by our genes and gene control factors, the so-called epigenes. The influences of the brain of the expectant mother on the brain of the unborn child play a role, as do early bonding experiences with parents or other bonding persons such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings or crèche members.

The older we get, the less influence our own experience or our environment has on our own resilience. Of course, that also depends on the extent to which damage or undesirable developments have already occurred. The more severe the damage, the more difficult it is to treat. However, contrary to what is often claimed, you can only make yourself more resilient to a very small extent, i.e. without external professional help.

What specifically influences resilience in early life phases?

Roth: We humans are born with a calm or difficult temperament that already shows certain elements of strong or weak resilience. Temperament depends on prenatal factors. For example, traumatic experiences of the mother during pregnancy prove to be particularly negative for the development of resilience.

Gerhard Roth is one of the leading neurobiologists in Germany. For a long time he headed the Institute for Brain Research at the University of Bremen. In 2016 he also founded the “Roth Institute”. Roth published around 220 articles on the topics of neurobiology and neurophilosophy and wrote several books – including the book “Über den Menschen”, which was published by Suhrkamp-Verlag in 2021.

“Über den Menschen” by Gerhard Roth was published by Suhrkamp Verlag in April 2021.

After birth and in the first years of life, neglect, abuse and abuse have a strong negative impact. On the other hand, caring behavior on the part of the primary attachment figures can stabilize or even increase resilience. This positive or negative experience of the infant and small child is deeply imprinted in its psyche, which means that it is a matter of fast and quickly consolidating learning.

If the caregivers – usually the parents – determine that a toddler has a difficult temperament and probably has little resilience, for example as a “cribbing baby”, then they can take special measures with the guidance of a pediatrician or toddler psychotherapist to change this behavior.

Are these measures very individual for each child?

Roth: Exactly. However, these measures are subject to the so-called “third law”. That means there will be toddlers who, despite their best efforts, will not lose their difficult temperament and will show anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, etc. as adolescents or adults. On the other hand, there is little or nothing that can be done later in adulthood. According to our findings, there is severe prenatal damage that cannot be adequately compensated for by a good bonding experience – at least not so far.

What does the law of thirds say?

Roth: All conventional measures to change a person’s mental state, including increasing resilience, follow this law: Good measures have a strong or longer-lasting effect on a third of those affected – so they can really increase resilience, for example. In a second third, the effect is weaker or short-term and in the third third, they have no effect at all.

However, this only applies averaged over all treated and all usable methods. So there are certain procedures that have a much stronger effect than average on some sufferers, but a lesser effect on other sufferers. Each treatment must therefore be individually tailored to the personality and circumstances of the person being treated, their deficits and the relationship of trust with the person being treated.

What types of treatments are there related to increasing resilience?

Roth: You can strengthen existing mental resources in people who have little faith in their own strength. They are instructed to reduce fears of certain challenges, especially fear of failure, by systematically “contrasting” these fears with positive experiences or ideas. The positive experiences then increasingly overwrite the negative ones in the memory. The person concerned has to be patient, because this is usually about deep-seated fears. If there are hardly any resources due to disturbed early bonding experiences, then the person treating the patient must first create basic trust in himself through an intensive “therapeutic alliance”, i.e. make up for missing bonding experiences to a certain extent. This may require even more patience, but it is necessary in these cases. Good persuasion alone, on the other hand, does not help.

Can you tell from the structures in the brain how resilient someone is?

Roth: With the help of imaging methods and special examinations of blood or saliva in adolescents and adults, it is now possible to identify which brain structures and corresponding psychological functions have developmental deficits, which then lead to reduced resilience.

The stress processing and self-soothing systems in the brain can be damaged very early on, for example by a traumatized mother whose brain transmits trauma signals to the brain of the unborn child. This is then seen in altered functioning of brain centers such as the hypothalamus, amygdala and other centers involved in the production of stress hormones and “sedatives” such as serotonin.

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There may be deficits in the attachment experience. This can be seen from a lack of production of the hormone oxytocin in the hypothalamus, which can be detected in the blood or saliva. There can be deficient or excessive production of the “driver” transmitter dopamine in centers of the limbic system, which then leads to either severe passivity or excessive activity or sensation-seeking.

However, all these findings do not replace the work of the psychotherapist or psychiatrist, who in turn should not do without neuroscientific findings.